Can Free Play Prevent Depression and Anxiety In Kids?

| June 29, 2014 | 58 Comments
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Over the past 50-60 years, play time in kids’ lives has been drastically cut. School days and years are longer and parents often schedule enrichment activities for their children instead of giving them space to direct their own play. Children are rarely given the freedom to direct their own activities, leading to a persistent rise in children feeling that they have no control over their lives. And, while correlation doesn’t prove causation, Dr. Peter Gray, who has been studying play for years, says there’s strong evidence that in this case, the decline in play is leading to a rise in depression and acute anxiety among young people.

Check out his TEDx talk for all the details on this fascinating area of research. Read more about play here.

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  • Melanie Taylor

    Excellent presentation. Free play gives kids (and adults, too) a chance to assimilate and make sense of all the day throws at them. Time to get balance and control on their own terms.

  • julion

    This really makes sense. It’s so real.

  • Kirk

    Thank you for writing and gather such great information and research. We need to play more often – OUTSIDE!

  • ReadingWise

    “Control over their lives” – how interesting. How much growing and learning comes from responsibility and control.

    • onetinkerbell

      And how interesting that many adults think that scheduling multiple activities makes for kids who are responsible and able to control themselves. I saw that this was not true 2 years ago when my younger daughter was in half-day kindergarten – she came home at noon, ate lunch, then went to an afternoon kindergarten enrichment program at our local children’s museum which was lead by an amazing teacher. After that she had gymnastics 2 days/week and sometimes swimming 2 days/week. She pretty much had only 1 weekday without an activity. She had more temper tantrums and moments of despair about not being able to play than she’d ever had as a 2 or 3 year-old. As a 1st grader, I had her choose which activities she wanted to do and we revisit it often. She chose to continue with gymnastics twice a week but not swimming. She has Girl Scouts and because I am the troop leader I have meetings every other week; this way she and her friends are certain to have at least 1 day every other week that is less scheduled when school is finished for the day.

      • Evie Maddox

        I was a swimmer growing up, and my “multiple activities” was swimming 2 hours everyday. It DOES teach responsibility when your time is scheduled and your free time is scarce. It makes you get your crap done timely or you will miss out on the free time you do have. Your daughter was a bit young, but when she’s older you will appreciate her having “multiple activities” keeping her out of trouble.

        • onetinkerbell

          While I understand what you’re saying, I don’t think you got what I was getting at – namely that it’s one thing to have activities scheduled and that can be a good thing. But when you don’t balance it out with the free time to play it can be detrimental. There is such a thing as being over-scheduled. Doing 1 thing for several hours a week doesn’t mean that you’re in multiple activities. It just means you do 1 thing several times a week. My daughter’s current schedule includes 6 hours a week at the gym because she recently made the team. Is that good for her? Yes. But it would be a bad thing for me to fill the rest of the time when she’s not at the gym with a multitude of other activities. You have to balance it. When I was a kid I took intensive ballet – like class every day except Sundays. I also had Girl Scouts and piano lessons. But my parents didn’t have me in other activities – they let me choose what I wanted to focus on, rather than have me running from lesson to lesson. And btw – having kids in multiple activities doesn’t mean that they will keep out of trouble. I knew plenty of kids involved in all kinds of activities when I was in high school who did things that their parents didn’t know about.

          • Kate

            Way to go, onetinkerbell. You are a great mom and completely on the right track! Take it from me. I know what I am talking about. I am a teacher with over 20 years experience and have 27 and 25 year old kids! :)

  • Caroline

    Children’s’ social skills and problem solving skills are weaker than ever. This is directly linked to the hovering parents and lack of freedom to play. It was reassuring to hear a professional address a very real and growing problem. We will all suffer the consequences of this neglect. Thank you for inspiring me to do something about it.

    • marty1234

      I agree that social skills and problem solving skills are weak. Directly linked to hovering parents?????? How about absent parents that do not model appropriate behavior????? I agree that free play is very important but I do not believe parent s should have to apologize for being involved with their children’s lives.

      • Sasha

        There definitely needs to be balance.

      • Ted F

        There is a big difference between “hovering parents” and parents who are involved. The term “hovering” is suggesting the parent is not allowing the child to make any decisions or play free from the parental direction. As noted in the lecture, sports are just an example of how play is not free when it is governed by parents or adults. Free play is allowing the child to explore, interact, and discover the social and environmental world without feeling the watchful stare, judgement, or correction of their actions from the parents or an adult..

      • teacherblack

        it’s interesting, because I went from working with underprivileged kids to what I would refer to as overprivilieged kids. Many of the underprivileged kids could definitely use more parental involvement (often not the parent’s choice, but a necessity of their economic reality, ie, two jobs, etc) but there were many, many of the “overprivileged” kids that needed the parents to back off. Some of them, of course, had parents who were as absent as the underprivileged kids (through their jobs that, I suppose by choice, took up much more than eight hours a day for both parents) but the freedom the higher economic status gave families often allowed a parent, still usually the mom, to stay home full time with the child. While this is a great blessing in many, many cases, by 5th grade, there were a handful of moms I wanted to shake and say, “ok, time to go get your own life back and let your kid have his. You don’t need to be doing their homework and arranging (and interfering with) their playdates anymore. Let them grow up.”

    • Joanie

      Let’s question the narrative about hovering or helicopter parents. For starters, ADHD and autism, anxiety, depression, and LDs are far more common than ever before. For someone who is not raising a child with a hidden disability, it’s easy to judge that parent as overly involved. You don’t understand the dynamic because you haven’t been in that parent’s shoes, doing therapy “homework” for developmental delays, carefully organizing the day to prevent their child from self-abusing (head banging, biting herself, etc.) We also live in an age of very real dangers on the playgrounds and in the homes of friends and even at school. In my day, we were taught to fear the strange man in the raincoat. Now it’s the aide at school, the kid in the lunchroom who goes home to get his automatic weapon, etc. If parents are more protective than parents of earlier generations, there can be good reasons for that.

  • coolmind

    kids’ job is to play! Let them play!

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  • BronteTeacher

    What a coincidence! Just got done reading this, which supports his point: http://kkim.wmwikis.net/file/view/Kim_2011_Creativity_crisis.pdf

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  • bramasoleiowa

    Last Child In The Woods by Richard Louv.

  • LAF

    The world became less safe though. It created the hovering parents. We are, therefore, in a precarious position of letting our children roam free during play and watching out for the bad things that may occur. Teachers have learned to respond early to “problems” on the playground before things happen because they are afraid of letting anything happen that might cause them to lose their job.

    • AJ

      The world is *not* less safe. Violent crime is at an all time LOW.

    • Phranqlin

      Statistics show that overall there is less crime now than in past decades, though. But it’s more sensationalized now, which makes us more fearful of it — and therefore more protective of our kids.

    • Persephone Abel

      Not to mention how sue-happy people have become. Kid accidentally gets burned by a fire cracker for being an idiot, the parent tries to sue the company and likely whoever purchased them, if not themselves. Just let the kid learn a lesson. You do idiotic things, bad things will happen.

    • Evie Maddox

      I don’t know what playgrounds you have frequented, but I’ve seen the exact opposite. Kids are beating the crap out of each other and the “playground monitors” are too busy talking to even notice. My daughter just told me the other day four years ago when she fell off the monkey bars in 2nd grade and landed on her head, her friend had to take her to someone to another playground where the adults were talking. I’d witnessed other crazy stuff since then, including one jr high boy try to strangle another boy. Nobody saw this building up because nobody was watching.

  • Margaret Sayers
  • alex davis

    When you take away a child’s adventures? You leave them with your “Discoveries”. He or She is not, in that picture. As a boy child, I discovered my ability to Survive. I found the confidence, I have today, during my childhood. Decision- Making and Leadership are created during “Childhood” experiences.

  • Laura

    I work with children who live in poverty. They have TOO MUCH free time and often lack the social skills necessary to navigate it. This “overscheduled” phenomenon is a middle and upper class problem.

    • Sam

      I think that his point is a very good one when talking about the middle and upper class. But like you said, Laura, it’s a phenomenon that isn’t there when talking about people who are culturally neglected. His final point is a good one that could certainly be elaborated- that children don’t necessarily need more school, but often they need *better* school, and that is a huge dividing line between who we can talk about as “children” in the grand sense, because throughout this talk I think that group is overgeneralized. Not all children (speaking in regards to race and class) have the same needs to thrive in this society that so clearly puts up walls that divide.

    • Kim

      Of course it is, Laura. Does that make it invalid? I don’t think so.

    • kane1970

      So, because being overscheduled affects kids in a higher tax bracket, their problems and needs aren’t as important? Give me a break.

      • MO JO

        did she fking say that?

    • Brian Kitchens

      Laura is making a statement. And that statement is true. She’s not invalidating anything. She is broadening the discussion and that’s a helpful thing.

    • teacherblack

      They have too much time, but they have impoverished play opportunities. (I’ve worked in inner city schools as well as rural impoverished schools). The parents in the inner cities often don’t let the kids out of the house because it feels too dangerous. As anyone can tell by driving around, impoverished areas have far fewer parks, gyms, hang-out areas, etc than middle or upper middle class areas. Certainly the “structured play” opportunities kids have (after school sports, etc, which is second best but still pretty good) are far fewer in impoverished areas. Schools like the KIPP schools recognize this piece and lengthen the school day and then add sports and other enrichment opportunities in. The piece that I think is missing that you point to is that having excess *time* does not necessarily equate into *play time.* He talks at the very end about ways to make more play opportunities, such as having a person supervising the park so parents feel safer sending their kids there. Well, the first step in most impoverished areas is to build the park, and then put in the resources to keep it safe. Build the gyms and hang out areas, and then have the resources to keep them open and safe. Poverty adds a layer of complexity for sure, but does not negate the basic point he makes.

      • Ann Paxton El-Moslimany

        Kipp Schools? Talk about eliminating unstructured time!

        • http://www.mindsparklearning.com teacherblack

          Yes. Although they work in a ton of cool enrichment into their longer time, in my understanding.

    • barbara kearney

      you’re right, they don’t necessarily have the electronics to occupy their time

  • Gayle

    Stuart Brown, author of Play, and founder of the National Institute of Play echoes Gray’s findings. Creativity and innovation seem to require play – http://www.gayleallen.net/want-more-happiness-in-your-life-play/.

  • RyanP

    In recent years I learned the term “play date”. As best I can tell it is a staged social interaction between 2 children who did not choose each others company. It leaves me with the same feeling as an arranged marriage. That is so bizarre to me. when I grew up(70s-80s) you just went out the door and ended up where ever with other kids you just happened to stumble upon. There is no structured play at all, it was a complete free for all.

    • Caffreys7

      That doesn’t work when you live on a very busy road with no gardens or lawns for the kids to play on. Playdate is a generic term for getting together to play. In my family, it is usually with my child’s friends from school. We don’t live in the same neighborhood and it doesn’t usually mean the parent orchestrates what the kids do. Just where and when (park, beach, home, etc.)

  • Chris

    In all animals, humans included, “play” is precisely how the young learn to interact with each other and the world around them. Play is how we, as children, safely learn boundaries, how to interact with other people, and even how to be creative. And, children of ALL species are MEANT to play. It is crucial for their brain development. Why else do you think children have so much energy? It clearly has a compelling reason to have children, during their growth, use so much energy on play.

    If there were no real significant benefit to it, it would be better, especially in the harsher world humans evolved in, for children NOT to move around much at all.

    Ever see lion cubs playing? Their play safely teaches them boundaries and practices skills they will need to survive when they mature.

    While human play may not be for literal survival, I’m sure trying to take play away from children is impairing psychological development in ways we can’t even begin to comprehend.

  • Susy 8a

    When it comes to “playing”, children do it freely, regardless the social, unless an adult interferes. Providing simple things such as a box or some buckets and a ball, they can play for hours and are happier than with a sophisticated toy. I´ve seen that sometimes it´s the adults need to “buy” “get” the whole collection. Children usually teach us, the grown ups many lessons and true values.

  • Evie Maddox

    I have a teaching degree, but choose to homeschool my kids, now 11 and 13. I think parents have a false sense of security that the schools are fulfilling all the kids’ needs, or that it is the schools’ JOB to do this. I can tell you from my background and from observation, that the BIGGEST responsibility you have as a parent is to undo what has been done at school, especially including what has happened on the playground. Your kid is either being bullied or is the bully. It is VERY rare for a kid to honestly say they have never been either one. It is inherent, the way schools group similar age kids together, that during the “pecking order” process kids will be negatively affected. Their weaknesses and insecurities will be used against them daily, as these things often decide how important, or how useful a kid is to the rest of the class. Recess is NOT play time, and I noticed he didn’t really even ask for more “recess.” Because recess alone causes more anxiety and depression than probably anything else a kid endures in school! My point is that you CANNOT count one minute of recess as “free play” time. Take your kid to the park after school and allow him to play with different age kids. You will learn a LOT about your kid just watching how he plays. Since we homeschool we have more time than other families. My kids would be considered “over scheduled” but they have plenty of time to ride their bikes to the park and play tag, etc. with other neighborhood kids. I read a study recently that said adults who were homeschooled are happier than those who were not. The extra time for play is a good reason why.

    • Kate

      Really? It has been proven that parents who were bullied lack the skills necessary to help their children avoid being bullied. I think it is so sad that you are pulling your kids out of public school because of your fears.

      My own children went to college with students who had been home-schooled. The difference between those home-schooled and those not was that the home-schooled were drastically behind in both academic and social skills.

      Oh, you are right to say that it is not the school’s job to fulfill all of a child’s needs. It takes a whole village!

  • MathTeacher

    He makes great claims without extensive evidence. This seems to be very biased research.

  • respectingothers

    I’ll take a structured activity over sitting in front of the TV anytime. I do agree unstructured imaginative explorative play is sorely lacking today. But we must consider it’s a much different world for today’s children than in the 1960’s when I had the run of the town for my explorative play. Most communities today aren’t safe for unsupervised children. My grown children have thanked me several times for not having cable TV in our home when they were children. and they certainly were NOT thankful back then.

    • Jenn O.

      Most communities are actually safer now. It’s just the 24 hour news cycle that makes us think it’s not so. My 4 kids have also expressed gratitude for our restrictive TV rules (none during the week) and no game system until the youngest was 12. They are now aged 19-29.

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  • Jeremy

    I work with teachers and principals from impoverished communities on a fairly regular basis. Safety is a primary concern in many communities, not just the lower income ones. So the question is, how do we give students healthy play time? Here is a solution that more and more schools (high and low tax brackets) are turning to: http://www.playworks.org/

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  • Joanne

    Super interesting and one of the main reasons I homeschool.

  • barbara kearney

    I agree that free play and outdoor activities (not counting organized sports) is severely limiting the creative process in children. Dolls and trucks and blocks are becoming obsolete earlier and earlier; yet, 21st century skills include creativity and communication as life skills that need to be addressed in the core curriculum. What a disconnect!

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  • Graham John Baker

    Play in humans probably evolved originally to help develop skills that later would be essential 4 adult life if u look @ cubs or pups or chicks etc play is very much an important part 4 the young animal or bird to learn important skills 4 l8er life so it makes sence 2 have a balance between too much free play time and too little free play 4 children play should also to a certain extent continue into adult life many birds and animals play through out life